Mental care far off for prisoner

Inpatient treatment for mother in poisoning of toddler could be year away

July 24, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun Reporter

The woman convicted of manslaughter in the methadone poisoning death of her toddler was supposed to be sentenced yesterday as part of a plea deal sending her to a mental health facility rather than a prison. But Vernice Harris is no closer to being placed in such a facility than she was when she pleaded guilty three months ago.

Social workers involved in the case say it might be six months to a year before a bed becomes available. Meanwhile, Harris, 31, sits in a cell at the Baltimore Women's Detention Center, where her defense attorney says her psychiatric condition is growing worse.

"The tragedy of this case is never-ending," Harris' attorney, Maureen Rowland, said after the aborted sentencing hearing yesterday at Baltimore Circuit Court.

Harris has been behind bars since being charged in January with killing her 2-year-old daughter, Bryanna. The toddler died in June 2007, and medical examiners determined that she had been given a fatal dose of methadone.

When she begins her probation, Harris will join about 3,100 others - 341 of them in Baltimore - who are participating in court-ordered mental health treatment as a condition of their release from prison. The Baltimore Mental Health System oversees services for the city's mentally ill, and it is overloaded, advocates say.

"It's very, very sad that this woman is just sitting in jail," said Kate Farinholt, director of National Alliance of Mental Illness for Baltimore. "But I'm not at all surprised."

Farinholt said that connecting people in the criminal justice system with mental health services is a particular challenge because they have double the needs.

A similar issue arose this spring in the juvenile court system, when officials could not find a residential mental health treatment slot for Kendrick McCain, a teenager convicted in the 2006 stabbing of a girl at a light rail stop in Baltimore. At hearing after hearing, attorneys and juvenile services workers said no facility would accept the troubled teen.

Joel Davis, a licensed social worker for the public defender's office, said what happened to McCain and now to Harris is "completely common."

"There is no such thing as inpatient, long-term mental health treatment unless a person goes to a hospital emergency room in crisis or is deemed not criminally responsible or unfit to stand trial," Davis said. "I can't just pick up the phone and find a place like that."

Harris said she is addicted to crack cocaine and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In 2002, she turned over two older daughters to the Department of Social Services, saying she could not care for them. She found out she was pregnant with Bryanna while hospitalized for a suicide attempt.

Police and prosecutors accused Harris of giving Bryanna methadone to keep her quiet during a drug party at the family's rowhouse on 25th Street, which was infested with cockroaches and was frequented by drug addicts. Harris' attorney said it is more likely that one of the men at the party that night drugged the toddler. No witnesses or evidence, such as fingerprints, conclusively point to a culprit, a review of police documents shows.

Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake said that Rowland persuaded her that Harris needed therapy rather than incarceration. On April 22, Harris pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter with the understanding that she would receive a suspended 10-year prison sentence and five years of supervised probation.

As a condition of that probation, Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory said he will order that she receive mental health treatment at an appropriate facility.

Davis said he was assured by the Baltimore Mental Health System that Harris would be placed quickly. But as of yesterday, she was No. 15 or 16 on their list, Davis said, because newly released state hospital patients move to the top of the list.

System officials did not return calls yesterday.

Noelle Hometchko, a licensed social worker for the state's attorney's office, said the mental health system told her it could take year to get Harris into treatment.

At a hearing yesterday morning, Rowland asked that Harris be released from jail pending placement in a mental health facility. The lawyer said being in jail was further jeopardizing her client's psychiatric problems. Drake objected to a release, saying she never would have agreed to the plea deal if that had been a possibility.

Doory recessed the hearing until the afternoon and asked the attorneys to come back with a new plan. At the afternoon hearing, Davis said he had found a group home that can handle mental health patients, though it is not part of the mental health system, and that someone would come to jail on Wednesday to interview Harris. Drake said she would investigate the program, and the attorneys agreed to come back to court late next week.

At the end of the hearing, Harris spoke up, saying she was "confused and frustrated" with how long it was taking to get her help.

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